The Marlins might not be going anywhere, but at least they'll get there fast. In an era of muscular hitters, short fences and long balls, they hope speed, pitching and defense can still win games.
At the top of the order Florida has second baseman Luis Castillo, who led the National League with 48 stolen bases last season, followed by fleet centerfielder Juan Pierre, who was second to Castillo with 47 swipes and was acquired from the Rockies in an off-season trade. Manager Jeff Torborg fondly remembers that the go-go 1965 world champion Dodgers, for whom he was a backup catcher, had a .245 team batting average and led the majors in stolen bases. A more recent example is the 2002 world champion Angels, who caught a little lightning in a bottle thanks in part to a little lightning on the base paths, finishing third in the AL in stolen bases. The stolen base title, however, has been the NL's equivalent of the Miss Congeniality Award—just one NL stolen base leader in the past 15 years, the 1995 Reds, made the playoffs—but Florida has to play to its strength. "We already knew we could run," Torborg said. "And we thought if we could cut down on our strikeouts and add even more speed and defense, it would help our young pitchers."
The core of Florida's baby-faced rotation remains intriguing, but great arms have not translated into a lot of wins. A.J. Burnett, 26, broke through with 12 victories and a stingy 3.30 ERA in 2002, but Burnett, Brad Penny, 24, and Josh Beckett, 22, are a combined 64-63 in their careers. More worrisome, the trio spent a total of 145 days on the disabled list last season. "People always talk about our young pitching," third baseman Mike Lowell said, "but they have to be healthy and they have to pitch." Beckett had the most vexing injury, a recurring blister on his right middle finger that forced him to go on the DL three times.
After sending veteran catcher Charles Johnson to Colorado in the Pierre trade, the Marlins signed free-agent Ivan Rodriguez, a 10-time All-Star and former AL MVP who has been hampered with injuries during the last three years. His 50% success rate in throwing out would-be base stealers in 2001 also fell off, to 33% last year, a career low. There was even talk of Rodriguez's disinterest in pregame meetings with starters and his penchant for calling an excessive number of fast-balls with runners on base. When the subject was broached, the 10-time Gold Glove winner was defensive. "Everybody was saying I call too many fastballs," Rodriguez said. "Nothing wrong with that. I want pitchers to throw strikes, and a pitcher's best pitch is usually his fastball." The Marlins, next-to-last in the NL in walks last season, could use the help. As backup catcher Mike Redmond says, "They're not an easy group to catch. They're young and wild. You go into Atlanta and you might not see the Braves' catcher have to block a ball in the whole series. We get 10 a night."
Of course that might not be Rodriguez's problem for long. He signed a one-year, $10 million deal ($7 million is deferred) that allows him to walk as a free agent after the 2003 season, something he said he "probably" would do, although he quickly amended that to "maybe no, maybe yes." General manager Larry Beinfest—who saved $29 million by dumping the contracts of Johnson and Preston Wilson in the three-team trade with the Rockies and the Braves that involved six players—will have overreached if Rodriguez doesn't resurrect his career.
Though his work behind the plate may have slipped a bit, Rodriguez remains a benchmark for defensive catchers, a complement to an infield of Castillo, Lowell, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and first baseman Derrek Lee that fields as well as any in the division. Torborg thinks his infield might even be an around-the-horn Gold Glove unit, although silver will be the Marlins' operative color for 2003. Florida has added silver to sleek new black uniform tops and toned down the original teal. At a Marlins awards dinner during the winter, the speed-obsessed Torborg said, "See those silver stripes? We're electric."
One way or another, the Marlins will make a run in the NL East.